Inquiry-based Learning – workshop by Paul Epstein

This workshop was held on 6 Oct 2018, Third Hong Kong Montessori Conference. I only went to the 3rd out of 3 sessions.

Although trained at the 3-6 level, I want to know about inquiry-based learning; it will be the way I support my children as they grow up, homeschooled or beyond school.

“Questions put inquiry to life.” Learning begins when we ask. Nothing is too petty to wake the brain up and provoke interest. When shown a photo of a starfish, a factual/knowledge statement would be “This is a starfish.” Instead of saying this, it will be more interesting to generate questions such as “What does a starfish eat?” “Can a starfish feel?” “Why is a starfish rough?”, or using a 4-year-old’s voice, “Do starfish poop? *chuckle*”

Model asking questions on a daily basis. (Just as you have to model self-regulation by speaking out thought processes.) Use ‘thinking’ words often.

At the centre of an inquiry-based learning is an essential question. An essential question is the bridge between reality and: 1) central idea/concept; 2) evidence; and 3) activities. To develop an inquiry-based curriculum, first consider desirable outcomes of the learning, then set the evidences of successful learning, and finally lay down the actual learning plan. Real world application as well as explanations must both be incorporated as learning evidences.

The teacher develops these curricula and coordinates on a cross-discipline level. Throughout schooling, there are specific concepts to be covered. The Montessori curriculum itself has specific learning outcomes.

To come up with an essential question, one begins with a big idea — an essential concept — which is a topic. The topic is discussed, clarified and pursued, until it is broken down into essential questions. The most essential one will be chosen and pursued for 8 weeks (4 under humanities and 4 under science) — this depends on the school schedule. Younger children (such as 6-9) will have to come back to the question every day. Place it in sight!

There are a few types of questions: factual/knowledge questions, descriptive questions, explanatory questions, conceptual questions, debatable questions. An inquiry study must incorporate ‘why’. The whole inquiry curriculum should be a little bit of a stretch, like ‘scaffolding’.

After establishing the area of investigation, we offer some ‘prompts’ — this discussion takes the objective of transferring from what the children are familiar with, to the unfamiliar. Such references include text, newspaper clipping, a quote, or a song. The discussion will allow us to see what the children already know.

Then, children will be given a list of activities to do, and a list of skills to master. The activities will be assessed according to a ‘thinking rubric’ as opposed to a ‘content rubric’. We want to judge children’s investigation; everyone starts at zero. The process of understanding is timeless.

Elementary children (6-12) prefer hands-on, physical experience like demonstrations before discussing questions. Adolescents prefer questions first, to be shortly followed by activities.

“Three-period activity” – I don’t exactly remember what the periods are respectively, but there is an emphasis on including an element of the real world. For example, students can meet with a real expert. The emphasis of learning is not to know a subject or discipline, but to be in touch with the thinking process of the professional.

Thoughts: I especially like how the ‘essential question’ can be pursued across disciplines (4 weeks under humanities and 4 weeks under science). Q-and-A should never be linear, nor should they be definitive. Questions can continue to be thrown and discussed, with the aim of clarifying or opening up new dimensions for work and thought. It isn’t that we cannot ask questions in another setting; questions, curiosity and the resulting quality of learning depends greatly on culture, attitude and communal support.

[Montessori Theory 101] Deep Concentration constructs Character

I have a unique experience that makes me a first-hand witness, or living proof, of Maria Montessori’s ideas.

Until the age of 16, I had a major defect — chronic carelessness. I would know every single question in a test and come home with 85%. I wasn’t bothered by it until faced with my first public examination — I want my grades to reflect my intellect, not my carelessness!

I was determined to get rid of my old habit. With the goal of optimising exam performance, I planned my preparation much like a professional sportsperson — from regular rest to strict diet, cross-training to relaxing, plus the recording, evaluation and analyses of my own performance. I am tough with my drills and refer to the answers/marking schemes as a control of error. A control of error provides impersonal feedback; I am able to scrutinise my work and log my scores with full independence. There must be no disturbance; no one understands my method, no one understands my deep, personal, developmental needs either. Looking back, I would say my exam preparation was spiritual more than intellectual.

By repeating my cycles of activity (execute-evaluate cycles), I was drawn into deep concentration, day after day, tirelessly indulged in my own routine, isolated from all distractions. Consistent, perfect scores gradually emerged. By then I knew I was ready.

I came in the top 0.02% of the annual exam among a hundred-thousand candidates. I didn’t realise until later that the results were an indirect outcome of my newfound character — well, actually, ‘normalised‘ — one who pursues perfection, exactness, and is focused on the intrinsic value of work. The careless girl who couldn’t care less about anything she does is nowhere to be found. I never expected her to vanish into thin air! I thought she would return when the tests are over, but her disappearance informs that my defect developed as a survival adaptation; it is not who I really am.

My Normalisation at 16-01

Deep concentration works magic. It rewires our brains and soothes our soul. It is where character is found. Strength in character comes from self-initiated, hard and repeated work. Ten years after my re-genesis, when I encountered this theory of Maria Montessori’s in The Absorbent Mind, I loudly and pleasantly proclaim its truth. I have done this myself.

(Note that this concentration is constructive. It is constant working and reworking. Passive meditation does not restructure character.

When everything in life is a scheduled sequence of responsibilities irrespective of ability, interest and effort, no one can enjoy the inherent tendency to pursue perfection. The industrial mode of schooling rewards efficient workers and displaces the craftsmen, thinkers and dreamers — exactly the people who push civilisation forward.

– – –

Suggested reading:

Chapter 19 “The Child’s Contribution to Society — Normalisation”, The Absorbent Mind Chapter 24 “Mistakes and their Correction”, The Absorbent Mind

[Montessori Theory 101] The many cycles in “The Absorbent Mind”

I studied Maria Montessori’s The Absorbent Mind in depth during January to February 2016. Hooked on it ever since, it is the experience that led me to pursue orthodox, theory-oriented AMI Montessori training in 3-6.

This book is primarily on childhood development; there is very little on the teaching method. The first edition is also peppered with blunt criticisms of usual prejudices and practices, unfortunately slashed (maybe censored) in subsequent editions. I prefer her theories over today’s stage-theories, because instead of fixating focus on progression and growth, a lot of her writing stresses on something else —

Cycles. (Usually overlooked.)

Progression is typically associated with linear or exponential. Truth is progress is neither. Progress is rolling — movement created by endless tumbling. This is a very oriental view, resembling the roles of seasons, the yinyang rotary, worldview covered in the Book of Changes, and the course of Chinese history — a few thousand years of dynastic rise-and-fall.

I made a few diagrams to illustrate the many cycles she covered in her book.

The Brain as an Organ (of the Psyche)

The Absorbent Mind diagrams by ann-06

The brain is an organ that can only be built and refined through functioning. Today’s science informs us of myelination — brain circuitry refined for more efficient processing. Also the neuroscience concept of “neurons that fire together wire together”. Why? Because the real world informs our brain, and our brain controls us in the real world. Endless cycles, endless refinement.

From an Organ to an Independent Person

The Absorbent Mind diagrams by ann-03

The brain develops through exercising, as above. The brain functions in accordance with the child’s quest for independence, a mission that is widely observed. Ability is developed through opportunities given, and stronger abilities open up more opportunities (even in the adult world!). The more a child does, the more he can do, the more he participates in society, the more he establishes his self and his identity.

Identity emerges from Freedoms

The Absorbent Mind diagrams by ann-05

Human beings have many kinds of expression. Doing/working is a kind of expression; language (speaking, writing) is another major one. Both will result in feedback, specifically ‘social feedback’ — feedback given by third parties. Understanding and acceptance is vital to the encouragement and refinement of expression. It continues in this cycle; the more opportunities, the better. Identity is established throughout the expression-feedback cycle.

A question I was asked during Sixth Form scholars’ meeting — “Who are you?” The teacher smiled when I had the satisfactory answer — “you are what you believe”, not in the Disney way, but you are defined by your values. There is no separation between ideas and identity, but if they remain unknown and unseen, how torn will you be!

Identity vs Character

The Absorbent Mind diagrams by ann-02

Identity is expressed; character is refined. Character is inborn, biological temperament, plus the ability to self-regulate it. We are all born with the first part; the latter is developed through years of problem-solving.

Maria Montessori argues that the strength of the character is rooted in walking. When the 1-year-old walks, wonders of the world opens up to him! The more the child walks, the more he interacts with the environment, which in turn feeds the psyche. Walking is a manifestation of the curious mind, as well as its aid. Then, all the cycles above happens with intensity! His body also develops energy, stamina, control, strength, agility and good health!

Work is Done

The Absorbent Mind diagrams by ann-01

When movement is performed with a purpose, it is called work. For example, my daily physical exercise is to massage my dogs and throw balls for them to fetch. These serve external purposes, so they are work.

My 14-month-old has repeatedly shown that he cares to brush our dog’s hair and mop our floor. Although that is part of imitative play, children love work because it is delighting to serve a purpose, entertaining to be ‘grown up’, and very satisfying to be coordinating thoughts and bodies.

Purposeful work grants membership to society. The community welcomes all who contributes, so why not let the children be welcomed too?

Hand as the Organ of Intelligence


Hand as instrument of intelligence handdrawn

Work is performed through the hands. Civilisation is partially an impressive collection of sophisticated craft, such as carpentry, textiles, script, pottery. The hands demonstrate intelligence, and their sensual manipulation in turn feeds the mind. It is yet another expression-feedback cycle, and a contributor of the nervous system.

Repetition and Result

The Absorbent Mind diagrams by ann-04

Cycles and cycles equal work performed/done. Maria Montessori coins the term ‘cycles of activity‘. I labelled the diagram with work or exercise instead of activity because work entails making a difference (even in the physics term).

When work is performed over time, it accumulates as heightened conscious will. Willpower doesn’t happen overnight; it is a muscle trained to be worked by plenty of cycles of activity, over a long period of time. Progression in life is simple… as long as the cycles are freely performed, adequately throughout the years.

Repetition is another word. Our culture likes to think of learning as ‘ticking off boxes’. This is too narrow a view. Learning benefits from a lot of repetition, going back and forth, connecting difference experiences in time — sometimes separated by years or decades. To allow or even encourage repeating and revisiting, is so different from frowning upon such needs as ‘retardation’ or ‘falling backwards’.


These are scattered throughout the book. But let’s modernise it into a “10 parenting reminders from Maria Montessori“:

  1. Include children in the home environment by offering child-sized provisions for them to lead a real life. Do not give luxurious toys instead.
  2. Welcome children into the community. Let them listen to your language and see your work. They want to adapt to the environment and culture.
  3. Let children walk on their own, guided by attraction. Follow the child.
  4. Let children pursue their own experiences. They are led by nature to seek exactness, precision and achievement.
  5. Let children make sense of their own experiences, by themselves. This fosters the ability to visualise the unknown and powers imagination.
  6. To obtain discipline, give freedom. The self is established through cycles of expression-and-feedback, not control.
  7. Do not teach. Do not assume the child is incapable or wrong.
  8. Do not interrupt. Learn what is really needed of you. Do not help unless your help is actively sought for.
  9. Treat the child with dignity. Aid his goal of independence.
  10. Serve his development, not his body.

Book review: Free at Last

Title: Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School
Author: Daniel Greenberg
Edition: Banyan Tree India, 2012

For some miraculous reason, an Indian-published edition in English is circulated online. I couldn’t wait for a book to come in the post — it wasn’t even in the Hong Kong Library system (what a pity!). Do not be fooled by the edition; this book was first published in 1987. This year, 2018, marks the school’s 50th anniversary!

Pages and pages of paper I flipped, within 12 hours on a usual day, I managed to finish it word-by-word.

This is by far my favourite book since 2015 — that was when I first read Maria Montessori’s works (The Absorbent Mind). These two impressive books take a contrasting approach to pedagogy. Montessori’s writings are full of passion, critique, biology and reasoning. Daniel Greenburg, on the other hand, tell an enchanting story of his 20 years at Sudbury Valley. The pedagogical approach is weaved into the cute, lively ‘students’ he portray. He describes the running of the school and its events, traces their developments, cyclical success and failure. Time is the best proof of any theory.

For example, on chapter 20, he recalls an episode with a six-year-old:

“Each time he threw, and each time he tried to catch, I ‘encouraged’ him: ‘Good job’; ‘Nice throw’; ‘Great try.’ Suddenly, he threw the ball at me angrily and shouted, ‘I don’t want to play with you any more. You’re lying. I threw terribly, it wasn’t at all good, and you’re a big faker.’

Of course he was right. And I was wrong.” (p.83)

Such story is a stronger argument than all the researches that tell parents and teachers to stop praising and rewarding because its manipulative nature kills intrinsic motivation.

This is what makes Free at Last such a pleasant read. The pedagogy is alive; learning is based on time, participants, the real and present world, cultural trends, talents and needs. It is enquiry-based learning, play-based learning, learning-by-doing, as well as a forest school.

But this school is not where children are set free to run wild. The institution is run on democratic responsibility. For instance, it’s the children’s responsibility to pursue their interests, then stick to the arrangements they have set up for classes (lectures), meetings and work. If they don’t stick, the ‘contract’ is annulled. The school’s judicial and budgeting systems are well designed and vital to smooth running, as well as staff whose manners are consistent, responsive, yet transparent when not sought for.

I love how the best of human nature is being glorified in this institution. Genuine interest leads to genuine learning, and the children compare their work against the toughest standards of the best; credible systems lead to optimal operations, and when they don’t they get worked upon.

I don’t wish to write notes about this book; reading it is an astounding experience. No facts or opinions to ‘hunt-and-gather’. If I am to summarise the plot, I shall say:

This is a personal account of an alternative school that opened in 1968, at Sudbury Valley in Massachusetts. Its graduates are strong-willed individuals who know indulgence and devotion to all that they are curious about. Rather than an academic curriculum, this school is run on systems, procedures and traditions, such as student-initiated classes, clubs/workshops, fundraising sales, and apprenticeships in the real world. Children 4-19yo are mixed together. Democratically enacted laws, budgeting processes, clerks, committees and corporations, and a judicial system to handle complaints allow for the school’s smooth running. Staff don’t teach or govern; they are resourceful individuals who await to be sought for. The school runs on very little money and refuses funding, counts heavily on responsibility and motivation, but cost per head is a fraction of the public school’s.

I have long believed that enquiry-based learning or on-demand learning is most suitable for the child above 6 years of age. I have been looking for likeminded families to share curiosity, questions and resources with. A part of me feels that Montessori lessons are fascinatingly designed; the other part of me feels bored — perhaps the latter is the child in me. I know children would rather play til hearts content and search their souls in deep. I know they have better missions in life than to follow a school routine each day. I just know it.

Maria Montessori is more of a naturalist than her successors. I am sure she will love the work these Sudbury children do.

– – –

“A friend once said, “I know the exact difference between you and progressive ‘free’ schools.”

“What is it?” I asked, skeptical that it could be said in a phrase.

“In your school, you’re supposed to do what you like; in the others, you’re supposed to like what you do.”

That said it pretty well.” (p.89)


Book review/notes: Parenting for a Peaceful World by Robin Grille

Title: Parenting for a Peaceful World
Author: Robin Grille
Edition: The Children’s Project, 2008


This ‘parenting’ book is one of its kind, given its title. It does not teach ‘parenting’, but rather highlights the role of parenting in society and in the long course of history. I am of the view that psychohistory and social psychology from the perspective of parenting ought to be a topic discussed academically, as early as in high school, for it is a topic of universal and future relevance! Mindful and optimal parenting does not come from thin air; parenting practices and prejudices are often generational and societal. Violence is proven transgenerational, and often is poverty too. Such change has to begin with mindset.

This book begins with a few weary chapters on the brutal Western history of parenting. Though not closely examined, the way which people treat children is quite intuitively highly correlated with economic resources, production mode, and societal norms.

The 5 parenting modes:

  1. Infanticidal – killed at birth
  2. Abandonment – given to someone remote and irresponsible (wet nurses)
  3. Intrusive – schedule-based and punitive rearing (industrial revolution)
  4. Socialising – more protection against abuse, taming, discipline, authoritarian (rise of psychology)
  5. Helping – naturalistic approach and trust in inner drives

Although we can say the developed world is moving onto a ‘helping mode’ of parenting, the author does not mention that all of these five modes are still relevant today, present in each society. There are still plenty of erroneous practices reminiscent of intrusive and socialising/authoritarian modes. The dark stories of infanticide and abandonment are often concealed, and happen among the marginalised poor, but with societal safety nets and improving support for mothers, children are given a better chance.


1. The scripture says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Yet parenting is mostly — doing unto others what have been done unto you! Parents need to learn the ‘shoulds’, and also closely examine what has been done on them. A deep reflection of circumstances, feelings, expectations and history is necessary.

2. Secure attachment is top priority. When the child feels his needs has been responded to in his early years, he is emotionally secure, which shall allow higher emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the prerequisite to understanding another person, particularly the speechless infant. (emotional attunement p.251)

– – –

The second half of the book is on development psychology. It includes brief arguments on some very common malpractices, and illustrates the emotional needs of children (Section VI: the five stages of early childhood emotional development). However, the text ends without revealing the flip side of the coin — the encouraging options that parents can pursue.

For example, when children are in a period where they fight for their “right to freedom” (think ‘troublesome-twos’ and ‘threenagers’), the encouraging option is, in my experience, to empower the child. How do I empower? I ask for their help with chores, as simple as preparing their own snack. I give them responsibilities, such as to walk the dog, to mix and match their outfits, to decide what’s for dinner. I have never had a difficult toddler.

Maybe the author deliberately refrains from pointing ahead, for structural reasons. But amidst lengthy theory and criticisms, it is calming to be reminded of the blissful ways of naturalistic parenting.

– – –

I have heard from other parents that they feel psychologically burdened while reading this book, not only by the scary history of child-rearing, but also because it reminds us of our childhood scars and refute many of the practices that most people have done unto children.

One example is reward – essentially manipulating – and its polarity – shaming. Manipulators are bred this way, and their targets are insecure dependents. Although narcissistic manipulators fare well in the corporate world, close relationships often fall awry due to manipulative, exploitative behaviour. In my opinion, if today’s game of power (political game) does not change in its ways, manipulators will continue to multiply and people will aspire to join their ranks, much like how brutality was once the dominant culture.

Parents are often thrown off when we Montessori teachers avoid rewarding and punishing. The grandparents too. Many adults do not know how else to channel children to good, accepted behaviour.

Throughout the book, the author emphasises on ‘empathy’, ‘contact instead of control’, ‘emotional security’. I would summarise them as ‘responsiveness’.

For example, instead of holding a newborn for the whole day, please hold him at his own terms, according to his expressions (p.283). But it was not until I read this book that I realise few people actually have emotional attunement to decipher a baby’s cries (p.251)! Now it all makes sense! I always thought deciphering cries was a maternal instinct, but my own mother tells me she could never attend to mine (luckily I had a very responsive caregiver). The author argues that only one with high emotional intelligence can speak the emotion-dialect. I agree from experience.

Another example is cue feeding (p.309), which all hospitals in Hong Kong do not support. (As a result I ‘escaped’ asap, within 24 hours; my babies all slept 6-8 hours continuously the first evening they’re home! They do not need to be waken up for breastfeeding. Please don’t wake a sleeping baby.)

“What most helps a baby to flourish is her parents’ ‘relaxed responsiveness’. Whereas parents needn’t jump anxiously at every sound the baby makes, it is equally undesirable to systematically delay responding to her vocalised needs.” (p.304)

‘Empathy’ is a big word that I myself tend to avoid. I would classify it as jargon; too many people confused empathy and sympathy anyway. My own interpretation of empathy is to respond to another’s needs – sometimes these needs are hidden deep. It is easy to get distracted by a hot situation or the extravagant expression of feelings. Instead of getting angry over sibling conflicts, what is it that the children need? Do they need a safe space each for them to work? Do they need guidance on how to wait? Do they need inspirations to find other constructive activities? I always try to respond to the need in a matter-of-fact manner; they are also entitled to voicing dissent guilt-free. (p.339) Relationships encompass conflict; love encompasses opposition (p.341). The needs of all parties involved need to be balanced (p.215).

Many of these needs can be understood from section VI on the 5 stages of early childhood emotional development. I’ve added a short description to each:

  1. The right to exist (at birth)
    Accepted and welcomed
  2. The right to need (<18mo)
    Responded to and understood, even without language
  3. The right to have support (toddling)
    Movement, participation
  4. The right to freedom (2+ yo)
    Autonomy, independent work
  5. The right to love (~6 yo)
    Explore physical sensations, curiosity towards love

All in all, there is a lot to take away from this book. The answers are few, but they will be sought by ones who take this wonderful opportunity to reflect, understand societal dynamics, and celebrate the inner tendencies of man. Those of us who come from a different culture (I’m Chinese) will have to research our own psychohistory, but the similarities are adequate for meaningful discovery.

Book review/notes: Teach Your Own by John Holt and Patrick Farenga

Title: Teach your own: The John Holt Book of Home-schooling
Authors: John Holt, Patrick Farenga
Edition: Perseus, 2003


At 286 pages long, this is John Holt’s last book, published posthumously. He passed away in 1985. Patrick Farenga, who chairs Holt Associates, have since edited and supplemented the text with updates to publish this work in 2003.

John Holt is noted for his work on homeschooling, but I learnt about him when specifically looking up on ‘unschooling’. I had been trained in the Montessori method (AMI diploma for 3-6 years), sent my daughter to a reputable and accredited AMS school, yet felt something was subtly wrong. It seems that everywhere in my city, the Montessori curriculum is utilised solely for cognitive training and motor skills development; the naturalist intracacies forgone, forgotten, ignored. For example, Maria Montessori wants children to enjoy doing their work outdoors, to be immersed in fresh air and natural light while they go about their busy lives. 99% schools won’t allow this — they come from a ‘classroom management’ viewpoint. I used to write and edit my work at the poolside in the summer. I know how good it feels to work outdoors, irrespective of Montessori or not.

There is something inherent in institutions that immediately strip away individualised, spontaneous learning/development. I cannot prefer sending my toddler to even the best daycares, because all day long, all that my toddler wants to do is to roam, sometimes in the garden, sometimes out in the village, to find rocks to chew, to meet people in the neighbourhood. He climbs tables, gets himself wet by banging on a dog’s water bowl, etc. He explores with the plenty of things that daycares and toddler environments can’t accommodate.

Maria Montessori dedicated a whole chapter in The Absorbent Mind to the importance of walking. But if children are in school from 8 to 5, how can the child head off for his own walk?

My Montessori mindset — observation of the child — tells me that 0-2.5yo aren’t suitable to be schooled; yet 2.5-6 love to be at a ‘home away from home’ (the children’s house), enjoying a largely autonomous life in his own social circle. But a home away from home is virtually nonexistent in my part of the world, due to the fact that it is either considered redundant, or inferior to a school that is loaded with instruction.

2.5-6 is the age which I think going to school has more benefits than not going. Children use the opportunity to pretend how dad or mom leaves home for work, and they feel particularly confident when they bring home things or stories to share. Social skills develop as part of their character. Beyond 6, social interactions are by far healthier in mixed-age activities such as boy scouts, training squads, team sports and orchestras, rather than at schools that classify solely by age.

John Holt spent the first half of his book lamenting over how bad a traditional school experience is, both academically and socially. The second half is filled with principles that, if one holds tight, will create freer, deeper, responsive and responsible learning:

1. Life-school. Learning is not to be segregated from life. Learn about life. Learn by doing. Learn by living. Learn because you want to. It’s an inherent curiosity. Learn because you need to. When it’s relevant it sticks forever.

2. Children have different learning styles. Some require structure and love following workbooks and schedules. Some will explore, indulge, learn on-demand and set their own pace. Be responsive and enjoy who they are. With admiration comes natural discipline. (p.241,268)

3. Make good use of the community. Expert help, interest groups, opportunities for volunteering and paid work, libraries and librarians, family gatherings… these are what children in school don’t have time for! (It’s an edge)

4. There is no one best way of education. This is what homeschooling tells the world. (p.264)

5. School trains students —- strategies, avoiding failure, etc. A good student is careful to not forget things until after the test! Schools and community colleges can be utilised for any expertise or required training, but should not be a default, life-bounding option.

6. If a child knows a particular work in life that he wants to do for himself, take the most direct path towards it. (p.193)

7. If an adult knows a particular work in life that he enjoys, do it for yourself and find a way to involve children. (p.203) Work WITH children. Don’t work ON children.

8. There are 3 approaches to homeschooling. First is text-based, structured kind of curriculum. Second is a subset of the first, but utilises hands-on projects and themes. Third is an ‘unschooling’ approach — on-demand learning. (p.241)

9. Legality of homeschooling: the burden is on the administrators to prove that you are incapable of teaching your children to an employable standard, hence become a burden to the state; and to prove that certified teachers are evidently better than non-certified teachers. Their case is weak.

10. Parents have the right to choose an education aligned with their principles. The state demands them to be educated, but does not have a monopoly over the method.

11. You are always the parent. Don’t take on the role of a teacher. Enjoy the child, be a companion in lifelong learning, and let the world (and the people he meets) teach him. Homeschooling is fundamentally love for life.

Extended thoughts:

Unschooling can only come after schooling, by definition. It calls to those like us who have experienced school as a waste of life and talent. I had no scars, but was thoroughly bored and detached from life. There is absolutely no use, from first-hand experience, to be a top student with no passion.

Whenever I feel something’s not quite right in today’s Montessori classrooms, I look for clues in Maria Montessori’s society — early 20th century, Italy. Her work began with children labelled as mentally challenged, who obviously were deprived of stimulation. Her work with normal children began with children of factory workers who were goofing around in the day. These were also underprivileged children.

Children of affluent families today aren’t underprivileged, but overprivileged and over-stimulated, their lives cluttered with objects and events. Simplicity Parenting, a book that I previously read, uses ‘simplicity’ as a tool against behavioural problems. It is essentially ‘undoing’.

Unschooling to me also includes countering cultural tendencies of trying to actively school our children before school even begins. One time I had to walk away from a family who bombards words at their 2yo in an otherwise serene country park. It goes something like this —- “Ladybug! Ladybug! This is a ladybug! Look, little one, ladybug! Why are you scared? Oh you don’t need to be scared. I played with them always as a kid. Look! Ladybug flew here. Here! Ladybug is here! Here! Do you see??? Come over! Why are you scared? Don’t be scared!”

It is annoying and disrespectful to the child; worse still — it is NOT a ladybug. Ladybugs don’t exist in Hong Kong. We have some of the Asian lady beetle variety instead.

To unschool is to humble oneself. Graduating from school bears no significance on learning. We are not invincible keepers of the truth, but rather voyagers seeking it. Wouldn’t it be great to share part of our journey with our young ones, admiring the view along the way!

Unschooling begins with natural birth. The child has his own schedule; our role is an ‘aid to life’ — the mother only pushes hard when the foetus gives those big, intense labour cramps! Giving birth is a mother-child partnership, a wonderful time of connection; I am the only one who can help my child come unto this world in a way he wants. If only people would think of it this way!

Book review/notes: Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne & Lisa M Ross

Title: Simplicity Parenting: using the extraordinary power of less to raise calmer, happier and more secure kids
Author: Kim John Payne, Lisa M. Ross
Edition: Ballantine, 2009


This is a book that everyone in the developed world, who is living an abundant life characterised by wants rather than needs, should read. It is a short read, a delightfully light and handy book that is tightly composed of consistent parenting principles. The stance is clear, the logic is smooth; it is designed to inspire and guide.

The author identifies the bulk of behavioural problems that are increasingly common today as a condition similar to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) — he coins his own term as “cumulative stress reaction” (p.9). We are all born with some quirk; it is cute and individualistic, until we are put under stress, then it manifests as a disorder.

quirk + stress = disorder (p.24)

Another well-known psychological effect is the stress-regress cycle. (p.178) Stress makes too much cortisol in the brain which limits higher mental processes and regulation.

The goal of the beginning chapters is to establish a common understanding among parents — that we are chiefly concerned about our children’s character-building.

“Building character and emotional resiliency is a lot like developing a healthy immune system. We know that our children need to be exposed to a variety of bugs and viruses in life.” (p.26) We don’t shield or overprotect; we don’t allow them to be permanently dirty either. We keep hygienic practices and take care of our bodies. We need safe and stable contexts to center ourselves.

Coincidentally, as a medical doctor, Maria Montessori brought physical hygiene to children in her care. She taught them how to wash their hands thoroughly. Then, children showed her something new — they were indulging in the activity, washing their hands over and over again, as if they were taking care of ‘psychical hygiene’!

The author is a Waldorf educator, so he may not exactly know of this Montessori antedote; yet, he also acknowledges that deep, uninterrupted play has the same effect as meditation — exactly what the handwashing children needed and did.

This book offers plenty of guidelines on how to achieve psychical hygiene, which in turn builds character and emotional resiliency. Let me summarise them:

Why simplification?

“I sometimes think of simplification as a powerful anti-inflammatory for families. Inflammation is our body’s ‘red alert’, its way of responding to harmful stimuli and irritants… [S]implification can break the cycle of inflammation — the itch for ‘more’, and craving for greater and greater stimulation — that threatens to overwhelm a family’s ‘system’.” (p.214)

Reduce speed, reduce stuff, increase connection. Parent-child and spousal relationships cannot thrive without connection. “With fewer choices, there is freedom to appreciate things — and one another — more deeply.” (p.214)

What is simplification?

Simplify = move away from excess towards balance.

The 4 levels of simplification (p.19)
i. environment (visual)
ii. rhythm (predictability, order)
iii. schedules (becoming unbusy)
iv. filtering out the adult world

How to simplify?

1. Provide deep, uninterrupted and spontaneous play. Self-directed, unstructured play is more important than organised sports (p.157)

– few toys (slash the quantity; quality is irrelevant, p.28)
– open-ended toys (vs over-designed, ‘fixed’ toys, p.65)
– discard toys that don’t fit the 10-point checklist on p.69/below
– do not disturb deep play (p.140)
– reference: the 4 play stages on p.64

10-point checklist of toys without ‘staying power’
i. broken toys
ii. developmental inappropriate toys
iii. conceptually ‘fixed’ toys
iv. toys that ‘do too much’ and break too easily
v. very high stimulation toys
vi. annoying or offensive toys
vii. toys that claim to give your child a developmental edge
viii. toys you are pressured to buy
ix. toys that inspire corrosive play
x. toy multiples

2. A cozy and calming environment, using: damp acoustic and quietness, no smell, beautiful candles, small rituals.

3. Simple tastes, natural foods. Food for nourishment, not for excitement. (p.118)

4. Reject the television. (p.167-175) TV sucks energy, brain development doesn’t happen passively; content contributes to neural hyperstimulation, desensitisation, and affects self-concept.

5. Reject fast-paced novelty. Neural hyperstimulation resulting from the brain focusing on the unfamiliar until it determines safe. (orienting reflex p.171)

6. Reject choice overload. Revisit real needs rather than wants and rising expectations.

7. Reject hyperparenting (p.183).

4 types of overinvolved parents:
i. sportscaster (nonstop illustration)
ii. corporate type (result-driven)
iii. little buddy parent / best friend parent (no boundaries, reflects own loneliness, pushes children to maturity)
iv. clown parent (constant carnival leads to exhaustion and disappointment)

8. Talk less. “The more you say, the less you are listening.” (p.186) “Just notice… quietly bear witness.” (p.187) Children ask for connection, not critique or compliment.

9. Talk right — avoid adult topics and negative talk.

– Do not involve children in every single thing. Do not let adulthood spill over to them. “[R]espect requires some distance and separation.” (p.188) “Too much information does not ‘prepare’ a child for a complicated world; it paralyzes them.” (p.190)
– Do not discuss about feelings until age 10 because children do not have the emotional consciousness and vocabulary to describe and dissect them just yet. End emotional monitoring and hovering. (p.199)


1. “Before you say something, ask yourself these questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” Necessary means it really is more important than silence. Child’s inner voice can only develop with silence.

2. Protect childhood from “too much, too soon, too fast” (p.160). “[O]nce we cross our kids’ names off the “Race of Childhood” sign-up form, time opens right up. Time for rest and creativity to balance activity; time for contemplation and stimulation, moments of calm in busy days, energies conserved and expended; time for free, unscheduled play, for ordinary days, for interests that deepen over time; time for boredom; and time for the joy and infinite passion of anticipation.” (p.161)

Other parenting suggestions

1. Give strength and hope through stories and tales

2. Read books. Internal imaging gives rise to creative imagination. This is an active, higher form of learning.

3. Choose engagement over stimulation, and activity over passivity. (p.174)

4. Cherish things, anticipate events. You can only do so with Iess. (p.149)

5. Pay attention to the emotions behind your words. Project a general sense of optimism, sometimes by talking less. (p.191)

6. Balance parenting responsibilities by involving the less-involved partner in the kitchen or the bathtub. (p.196)

7. Meals are of prime importance for relationship building. Share meals, rituals, conversations, duties and time at the table.

8. Schedule 2-3 pressure valves at different times each day. Examples of pressure valves: nap, rest time, projects, play, hobbies, sports

9. Create a balanced schedule (p.139)
– Rest –> creativity –> activity –> rest
– If the child had 1 active/crazy day, balance it with 2 calm days (p.145)

10. Embrace boredom. This is where children will find deep inner wells of creativity and resourcefulness. (p.174) This helps them for life.

11. There is a fine line between helpful parenting and hyperconscious parenting. Anxiety is a result of over-watching our children’s development and achievement. (p.201) A lot of it is fuelled by society. Reject them.

12. Trust is the theme of childhood. (p.190)

13. Remind yourself each evening of who your child is, rather than what’s next to achieve. (p.202)

My opinions on Montessori vs Waldorf preschool

This blog entry is more for myself than a scientific, scholastic comparison of the two schools of thought. I decided to get Montessori training after I briefly read Rudolf Steiner’s work, so I already know whose ideas I side with at this stage in life.

However, I arranged for myself to visit a Waldorf school in my neighbourhood (Sai Kung, Hong Kong) as I am looking for a more natural alternative to commercialised Montessori programs that adopt a narrow definition of ‘work’ (i.e. product-driven, cognitive stuff). I wanted to see a Waldorf environment and how their children learn.

Both schools take a holistic view of the child, stress detail observation and understanding of the family (incl. history).

The child’s goal

Maria Montessori thinks the child’s primary goal is to adapt to the environment, which inevitably includes language, math, physical science, reasoning and all kinds of serious disciplines. In her view, the child is an intense learner intrinsically driven by intense curiosity and passion towards his/her environment.

Rudolf Steiner, on the other hand, wants the child to retain his/her naivety (probably not the official Waldorf term — please inform if you have it), to be connected with the spiritual realm, to hold tight to innate powers such as imagination and intuition.


Montessori is fun but highly academic. There is arithmetic that goes up to the thousands, operating fractions, introductions to the binomial, trinomial, deconomial theorems, geometry, vocabulary for everything, writing, reading, etc. Montessori apparatuses look (and are) scientific. These lessons are founded upon solid experience of independent, practical work such as housekeeping, food preparation, and care of self which are all performed with curated sets of tools. Children are responsible masters of the Children’s House.

Waldorf refrains from cultivating the child’s intellect in the 0-7 period. There is no reading and writing, and the guides do not reason with the child. The environment is decorated by spellbound artwork (mobiles, scarves, lazure painting), features baskets of what I call ‘raw materials’ for imaginative play. Everything in the environment is to draw the soul and inspire. In their opinion, better-cultivated imagination in the 0-7 period would allow the child to learn more eagerly and much swiftly in the next period. I never thought baskets of wooden eggs, yarn and hoops could look so dignified on a shelf. There is also plenty of practical work, such as cooking and knitting, but the stress is on connecting with creation rather than to be a capable member of society.

Both schools want children out in nature. Waldorf is free play, but Montessori would also like an outdoor space for work, such as a porch, quad or balcony — much like how good I feel with al fresco writing…

Order aka Rhythm

Both schools stress regularity — it is the theme of early childhood.

Montessori schools have ideally 3-hour uninterrupted (independent) work cycle in both morning and afternoon. Waldorf is free play sprinkled with group activities at a consistent time.

My vision

My eldest (4) has been in Montessori for a year and her growth is tremendous. I was originally anxious about her being at home over the summer since we do not have a lot to do at home compared to school. However, I am pleasantly surprised that she has been calm and would go about her own business despite the boring setting. On school days, she comes home stunned and restless.

My guess is, she is overwhelmed at school. When I observed her in class, she skipped from work to work, fiddling with 5 sets of work in 20 minutes. She is upbeat and busy, but I felt maybe she is too busy.

The Waldorf method would guard the child against this. There simply is nothing to skip to and from. Swing to the other end of the pendulum!

The Montessori method has modest beginnings, with a lot more about life and a lot less brainwork. Maria Montessori talks about playing in the rain and with dirt. She is intense (herself a rare female doctor) but carefree, but many Montessorians did not catch the latter. Everyone is obsessed with the apparatuses which I agree looks super cool. With a ton of off-syllabus materials that many schools don’t hesitate to add, the vintage, cozy house of the children has been institutionalised, and appear more like science laboratories than a place to live — which must include a calm (minimalistic) environment to rest.

Montessori is a middle ground, where the method is fun and the curriculum is tough. But to undo the harms of our fast-paced world, the zen execution of Waldorf is necessary.

What if…?

  • Montessori classrooms be held to the aesthetic standard of Waldorf
  • Montessori guides focus on action, imagination and inspiration rather than the term ‘work’
  • Montessori classrooms incorporate a living room where there are places to lie down, roll, climb, jump and perform all the natural movements a child

Oh, how I wonder. I will have to travel the world to find out…

Meanwhile, I found an art studio run by a Montessori teacher who has come to the realisation that product-driven work is inferior to developmental-driven experiences. Children work to acquire skills; they don’t work for the sake of a product. My other daughter roamed the place with a joyous grin and engaged in imaginative play. The availability and appreciation of both real work and free play is what I will continue to seek.


P.S.: If there is anything you’d like to chip in or correct especially regarding Waldorf, I will be very interested to hear.

Book review: 不教養的勇氣 by Kishimi Ichiro

Title: 不教養的勇氣 (Meaning: The courage to not teach)
Author: 岸見一郎著、李依蒔譯
Edition: 天下文化(2016)
Period: 23-28 Aug 2018


The Japanese author Kishimi Ichiro is an Adlerian psychologist and philosopher. This is his first book on parenting, and is yet to be translated in English. His delivery is clear and crisp, repeating themes throughout the book with different examples. The abundance of real life stories easily allows the reader to feel relatable, consequently empowering one to adapt the author’s (or Adler’s) strategies.

Alfred Adler is known to purport a democratic family for the child, one where he is viewed as an equal. The goal of parenting, which is shared with Maria Montessori, is to foster independence. The path to independence is to be achieved by:

1. Understanding the objective of a child’s behaviour

The author argues that a child’s misbehaviour is utilised as a tool to attract attention, even if it is negative attention — a child doesn’t really care. It is also important to know whose attention the child is after. If the adult is agitated, it is where power struggle begins.

2. “Grace and Courtesy”

This Montessori term means teaching the child how to appropriately express or respond in a social setting, either ahead of time or at a neutral moment.

3. To be responsible for one’s mistakes, decisions and behaviour (discipline)

When the child makes a mistake (such as a mess), focus on the solution — how to fix the situation. The caregiver does not scold nor does he/she pick up after the child. The same goes for decision-making in an older child. The adult should not assist or advise the child unless his/her help is sought for. Any imposition impedes the child to acquiring and learning responsibility.

4. No praises, no scolding, no rewards, no punishments

The child shall not be motivated by external factors. The child needs to act according to his intrinsic motivation and internal thinking. We want to raise children who will do the things they see right, not to be swayed by opinions, peer pressure, or the hedonistic.

5. Give courage

Empower the child by focusing on how he contributes. This includes how he is at the present moment. The child shall not be laboured by expectations of achieving more or less, but rather embracing himself as being his best at this very moment.

6. Social belonging

Another facet of courage — the courage to belong, to relate with society. Adler sees relationship with society as a key factor of mental health. This includes an equal, fair relationship with caregivers and adults.

7. Have faith

Caregivers should have faith in the child, that he is able to make decisions for himself, to set his own objectives, and to act accordingly.

– –

Short chapters and abundant subtitles make this book an easy and focused read. It is highly recommended for all parents who want to see and treat their child differently — with more peace, more confidence and more individuality. Adler’s approach would be what is considered ‘respectful’ by many, although this’ a big word I hesitate to use, as well as Mr Ichiro. I also see this way of parenting as a prerequisite for implementing Montessori.

Ever since completing the book, I have seen my children in new light. I understand my 2-yo’s tantrums as deliberate actions to attract scolding (negative attention), and so I deliberately not scold, not speak, and just ignore (wait). The effect is magical — she stops crying, picks up herself, wipes her own tears and proceeds onto fixing the situation (such as spilt food and drinks), without any external help. It is as if her mind has moved on to thinking “what is the right thing to do?” I thank her for her contribution; how appreciative I am of her at present. Life is easier without passing judgments on people. Let us all be ourselves.




Book review: The Art of Discarding, by Nagisa Tatsumi

Title: The Art of Discarding
Author: Nagisa Tatsumi, translated by Angus Turvill
Edition: Hachette, 2017


This book is a monologue. It is the voice that I need to hear while decluttering my residence. Part one of the book provides 10 attitudes/mindsets that helps with throwing away things. Although she describes our ‘clinginess’ to stuff, her words carry no blame whatsoever; it is a matter of life, not a fallacy, not weakness either. This makes the reader comfortable and open to her suggestions. “It’s a mindset that I can take upon without having to change myself,” the reader may feel.

This is the tone of the book — take it for your own use. Part two goes a further step to offering 10 strategies/plans that puts you into action. The table of contents is quite representative, for your reference:

the art of discarding p1
Table of contents, The Art of Discarding (1 of 2)
the art of discarding p2
Table of contents, The Art of Discarding (2 of 2)

Marie Kondo’s The life-changing magic of tidying up and her subsequent manual Spark joy covers both discarding and organising, including her signature folding method and storing clothes vertically. Nagisa Tatsumi’s The art of discarding, however, is a focused textbook on discarding. I suggest reading Marie Kondo’s as an overview, then Tatsumi’s guide to power you through the discarding stage. Kondo’s criteria of ‘only keep what sparks joy’ is an overarching theme, while Tatsumi’s 10 attitudes and 10 strategies will keep sentiments and procrastination away from logical, objective business.

(In my Montessori training, there is a principle called “whole to parts”, which is why Montessori children uniquely start their geography work with the globe and its continents. Marie Kondo’s work is a ‘whole’, and Nagisa Tatsumis work is a ‘part’.)

I feel empowered after reading this book, for now I know there is this voice to assist my journey in decluttering.